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Xi and his fear of free questions

By Johnny Erling
Johnny Erling schreibt die Kolumne für die China.Table Professional Briefings

Xi Jinping is commonly described in foreign biographies as “the most powerful man in the world,” even more so since he managed to extend his term for another five years at the 20th Party Congress and fill all important party posts with close followers. For the second time during his time as president, Xi had the party constitution amended and now has all 97 million CP members doubly sworn in to defend him as “the core and at the same time the central authority of the party leadership” (两个维护). Since his unstoppable rise to absolute power, Xi refused all interviews or public dialogues, apparently for fear of exposing himself. Everything is meticulously orchestrated for him, as was evident at the most recent Party Congress, which he prepared down to the last detail, apparently to avoid risks.

The ritualized scene repeats itself every five years. And last Sunday, it played out again in the People’s Congress – certainly not for the last time. Immediately after the end of the 20th Party Congress, the Party leader, who was confirmed for another five years, stepped before the journalists in the hall with six chosen henchmen for his Politburo Standing Committee. Except for Xi’s new inner leadership on the podium, everyone else had to wear a mask because of Covid.

For the presentation of China’s new internal leadership, Xi chose the ‘Eastern Hall’ of the People’s Congress at the 18th and the 19th Party Congress (2017), with the Great Wall standing for China as the background image.

It was his show of undisguised imperial power, with reporters playing only the role of claqueurs. Xi chose the “Golden Hall” of the Great Hall of the People (人民大会堂金色大厅) for the meeting. In 2012 and 2017, the “East Hall” (东大厅) had been sufficient for the self-promoter, with its giant mural of the Great Wall, the symbol of China. This time, he celebrated his appearance, broadcast live on TV, in front of a red background with the Party hammer and sickle emblem. In other words, Xi is the personified power of the Party.

For his presentation after the 20th Party Congress in 2022, Xi chose the ‘Golden Hall’ of the People’s Congress. Against a red background and hammer and sickle emblem symbolizing the power of the Party.

At the end of 2012, he introduced himself as the new Party leader with his men in tow as “primus inter pares”. In 2017, he set himself apart from the collective as the “core” of the leadership. Now, the 69-year-old Xi outgrew all that. The world press wrote “Autocrat Xi,” calling the other Politburo Committee members his “loyalists.” Courageous bloggers mockingly demanded that the committee be renamed the “Xi Secretariat.”

Mistakenly, Xi’s appearance in front of journalists is repeatedly referred to as a press conference. Beijing’s official reading speaks of “meeting with domestic and foreign journalists” (同中外记者见面). Since Xi ascended to China’s party leadership in 2012, the party and state leader has not given press conferences or interviews.

Xi leaves nothing to chance

Thus, Xi once again evaded tricky questions from the press, not only those that would have interested foreign countries. In a game of cat and mouse with the censors, courageous Chinese bloggers wanted to know from Xi why he is relying more and more systematically on old networks as his new power base. They listed four of his close associates from his time as Zhejiang provincial chief from 2003 to 2007 whom he lifted into the Party leadership. In addition to Li Qiang (李强) and Cai Qi (蔡奇), who sit on the Politburo Committee, there are Chen Min’er (陈敏尔) and Huang Kunming (黄坤明), who sit on the Politburo. Online, nicknames like Xi’s “Zhejiang Club” or his “Shanghai Faction” are currently causing a furor. A list of the names of 19 senior party officials who dealt with Xi when he was Shanghai party chief in 2007 is circulating online. Three ended up in the Politburo, eight in the Central Committee, seven are CC successors and one is said to be part of the CC disciplinary supervisors.

In 2014, positive caricatures of Xi were still allowed to be published. Here Xi and his Chinese dream are on the front page of the newspaper “Satire and Humor,” which is part of the People’s Daily. Now, even such drawings are no longer allowed to be published. They are not compatible with the honor of the “core of the party”.

From the beginning, Xi has been working towards this, directing and overseeing all the preparations, elections, and decisions of the 20th Party Congress. This week, he allowed his propaganda apparatus to reveal amazing things. For example, how the nomination of the 2300 Party Congress delegates took place, the new election of the CC and the CP leaders, or the 50 changes in the Party statutes. The Party agreed on these in eleven working conferences, each of which was chaired by Xi.

He left nothing to chance, nor did he trust internal Party recommendations or nominations. In March 2021, he had a higher-level CC special commission established to review the nomination of all 2300 CP Congress delegates. He made himself its head (2021年3月… 中央政治局会议 决定成立二十大干部考察领导小组,习近平总书记亲自担任组长). Forty-five groups of inspectors from the CC and eight from the Military Commission spent months sifting through the behavior and views of every candidate all over China on his behalf. It was not just about how loyal they are to Xi, but about how committed they are to his cause, to “determine whether they have the courage and are adept at standing up to Western and US sanctions and defending China’s national security.” (注重了解在应对美西方制裁、维护国家安全等问题上是否敢于斗争、善于斗争)

No wonder all the delegates at the Party Congress voted yes. What is even more concerning is that Xinhua reveals how decisions on a person’s appointment and duties depend primarily “on the party’s complete system of standards and perfected procedures, and by no means just on the simple election results.” (党的领导和民主是统一的,不是对立的….不能简单以票取人”…我们党…有一套完整的体制,选人用人标准). 

Xi is turning out to be a control freak. That may be the reason why he does not give free interviews to Chinese or foreign reporters, which involve an element of unpredictability. When CCTV surprisingly once showed him at a Q&A session with Russian correspondents in 2017, one participant later revealed to me: They had to submit their questions in advance, which were answered to them in writing by Xi’s office. During a brief photo-op, Xi pretended to hear and answer them for the first time.

‘Uncle Xi’ locks the power in the cage of the law. Another caricature published in the newspaper ‘Satire and Humor’.

In 2014, I witnessed how a journalist spontaneously asked Xi a question during a visit of US President Barack Obama. After eight hours of talks, the two presidents achieved a breakthrough in their climate protection agreement, which had been negotiated for months. The Chinese side agreed that Xi and Obama would answer questions from journalists at the People’s Congress following their statements. It was agreed that a US correspondent would be allowed to question Obama and a Chinese journalist would be allowed to question Xi. As a price for China’s concession, the press conference was not broadcast live on TV.

Thus, the Chinese TV audience missed that New York Times reporter Mark Landler did not abide by the agreement. He first asked Obama, but then suddenly turned to Xi, asking his opinion on the situation in Hong Kong and on China’s residence and visa stops for US journalists disliked by Beijing.

I was sitting a few meters away and saw how Xi was looking for answers. He was playing for time, demanding to hear the next question from a Chinese journalist first, for which he was obviously prepared. After lengthy answers, he responded to Landler in a strange way: “When a car breaks down on the road, its occupants should get out first to see what the problem is.” Then he quoted a proverb: “Let he who tied the bell on the tiger take it off.” It took time for the audience to understand: Those who caused the problem (i.e., angered China) should first look for a solution themselves.

Power changed Xi

A mix of fear of exposing himself, coupled with the arrogance that Xi, as China’s leader, does not need to give interviews, seems to be why he has not allowed interviews since 2012. His predecessors were different, with Mao Zedong answering Edgar Snow even amid the xenophobic Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping faced two days of probing questions from star journalist Oriana Fallaci in 1980. Such interviews are still an exciting read today.

On May 2, 1990, ten months after the Tiananmen massacre, President Jiang Zemin was not afraid to take a stand in front of US celebrity journalist Barbara Walters and later Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes.” He engaged in a live televised speech duel with US President Bill Clinton at the Great Hall of the People in 1998. I also had the privilege of interviewing Jiang for the German newspaper Die Welt as a Beijing correspondent in 2001, together with my editor-in-chief at the time. That was something special, but normal.

Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has not given any personal interviews to the media. This was different from his predecessors. Here, Party leader Jiang Zemin welcomes the then editor-in-chief of Welt am Sonntag and (on the left) the newspaper’s Beijing correspondent in Zhongnanhai for an interview in 2001.

Since the Xi era, everything changed. Yet before 2012, as a provincial leader, he allowed himself to speak openly to Chinese newspapers and local TV stations. But with more and more power, Xi changed. Mindful of his own status, after 2017, he had even positively intended, harmless cartoons banned, although he tolerated them at the beginning of his rise. At the same time, he began to speak and write in increasingly ideological terms. Peter Handke’s proverbial goalkeeper’s fear of penalty seems to set in for the “most powerful man in the world” as soon as it comes to free interviews with the media and feely conducted dialogues.

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